Les MisÚrables: An Historical Film

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In 1842, Victor Hugo wrote one of France's greatest literary masterpieces. An epic tale about humanity, it centered on the travails of one man, Jean Valjean, whose life combined a desperate struggle to survive with an equally strong need to help the suffering and assert the dignity of man. Set against the events of the French Revolution, Les Miserables was a riveting story and an allegory for the whole of human experience.

The novel soon became a worldwide classic, and several versions of it have been adapted to film. Most recently, a highly successful live musical version has played onstage in theaters around the English-speaking world.

Now, filmmaker Claude Lelouch has once again examined this rich story and has been inspired to reconsider it onscreen in a completely new form.

He explains, "I retained Victor Hugo's love of chance and coincidence, but it is the spirit more than the letter of the tale that I wanted to render. Crossed destinies, a narrative universe where individual adventures shape a collective destiny, and the resonance of history on personal life characterize Lelouch's story as they did Hugo's. "A popular story in a contemporary setting," says the filmmaker, "at the same time an homage to Hugo and yet totally original.

"It is completely natural that I turned to Victor Hugo and his Jean Valjean, this true and simple man who attempts to make his way through a hostile and complicated world. Modestly, I then tried to put myself in the shoes of a Victor Hugo who would have been born at the same time as the moving picture someone who, inspired by the miseries of the 20th century, would have told the story of Valjean, Thenardier, Javert, Marius, Cosette and all the others in order to affirm, once again, that the human being is the most beautiful of spectacles, even when life hands him a bad role."

Lelouch's experience with Les Miserables goes back to his early years, when he was a five-year-old child in 1942, fleeing a Nazi-occupied section of France with his mother, Eugenie, and a handful of falsified papers. As he and his mother attempted to pass through a police station on the border of the "safe zone," a controller appeared to have discovered their scheme. The price of safe passage was Eugenie's gold watch.

"What a Thenardier he is!" Lelouch's mother sighed when they were safely past, referring to the greedy innkeeper of Hugo's story who profited from the misfortunes of others. That night, to put her young son to sleep, Eugenie began to tell him the story of Les Miserables, drawing from their present trouble examples to help little Claude understand the endless struggle between good and evil.

Later, during his military service, Lelouch read the book and, even later, as an adult, he read it once again, enjoying its scope and insight differently each time. Finally h felt that the time had come to create his own artistic response to Hugo's work.

"Victor Hugo was 60 years old when he decided to publish his Les Miserables," reflects Lelouch. "I, myself, am going to reach that age soon. It was without a doubt the time to make the film."

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